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Monday, November 5, 2007

Magnetic Monster

This is the first sci-fi movie of the year 1953. This would prove to be a very full year for sci-fi fans, with some classics (famous and infamous) emerging. Magnetic Monster (MM) is the first of three sci-fi movies Ivan Tors wrote & produced. Tors, perhaps more famous for his Flipper productions, had written dramas and romances prior to this. MM, Tors' entry into the sci-fi genre definitely brings in a different mood.

MM is first of an O.S.I. trilogy (Office of Scientific Investigation).Tors approached sci-fi as an FBI drama, spinning it as adventures of "A-men" (A as in Atom) -- detectives in the field of science. The opening voiceover provides their motivation, "New dangers face mankind, dangers which challenge his very existence..." With the almost constant narration, MM has an almost Dragnet-like flavor. (Coincidentally, Dragnet was a popular TV show at this same time.)

Quick Plot Synopsis
Mysterious magnetic happenings at a local hardware store eventually gets a couple OSI agents called to the scene. They find a dead man in an upstairs apartment "lab" and traces of an unknown isotope. They trace this mystery to a Dr. Denker who was trying to fly his unstable isotope back to a university lab. Denker is dying of radiation poisoning, but tells A-Man Stuart how he accidently created the isotope and, more importantly, how it periodically "grows" by sucking in all the energy around it, converting energy to matter, doubling itself in size. With each cycle, the isotope, called Serenium, demands twice as much energy and grows twice as dense. Denker's last words were: "Keep it under constant electric charge. It's hungry. It has to be fed constantly. Or, it will reach out it's magnetic arms and grab at anything within its reach, and kill it. It's monstrous."

The OSI try to follow this advice, but eventually the Serenium grows too big. Even a whole city's power grid is not enough to contain it. If left alone, the Serenium would keep growing until it's mass threw off the rotation of the earth, sending it wobbling off into space. They have only 11 hours (the period between absorption-growth cycles) to fly the Serenium to an experimental cyclotron in Nova Scotia, which is hoped can produce enough power to overfeed the isotope, causing it to split into two stable isotopes. With much drama, the Canadian Deltatron is pushed beyond it's limits, destroying itself, and the underground lab, but also accomplishing the mission. The magnet monster was stopped.

Why is this movie fun?
There's much about MM that is very different from the usual sci-fi. These differences make it fun. First off, the "monster" is inanimate. It's an isotope. It's quite a challenge to make a non-living thing the frightening villain in a story. Tors actually does a pretty good job. A similar "monster" film Monolith Monsters (1957) would try this too, but with less success.

Also, the Deltatron is pretty cool. It seems grander than a low-budget B-movie would usually have, which turns out to be true. It's recycled footage from a 1934 German film Gold, which featured a huge electrical generator. (the premise of Gold is a huge generator used to turn lead into gold.) Tors liked this footage and used it. He had some costuming changes and stage sets built to harmonize with the Gold footage, and spliced them in. That does explain the rather almost Metropolis-like expressionist look of the Deltatron. And, why all the characters start wearing overcoats and fedoras. Still, it makes for some good watching.

Cold War Angle
The whole Serenium grown, feeding on things around it, until it threatens to destroy the world, is a pretty obvious metaphor for the nuclear age. At the end of the film, Stuart talks with his pregnant wife about families and multiplying. "Multiplication. Done through love, the result is a baby -- a lovely thing. But without love, done through hate or with fear, the result is a monster..." There's your Cold War / nuclear moral for the story.

Notes
Sure, some of the science they spout comes across as techno-babble and seems contradictory at times, but this isn't a big detraction. It's a movie after all. If we can suspend our critical inner lab-coats to accept aliens and flying saucers, or "atomic" rockets to other planets, then it's not such a big task to accept an isotope which can convert energy into matter. The moral of the tale is how man ought not be tampering in nuclear things he doesn't really understand. So, our not understanding how Serenium works should be expected.

MM follows the fine old B-movie tradition of using military stock footage, including the mismatches that often result. One such mismatch is the plane the isotope is flown to Nova Scotia on. They load the Serenium onto an F-80 Shooting Star (straight wings, tip tanks, intakes on the sides), but all of the in-flight footage is of an F-86 Saber (swept wings, no tanks and an intake in the nose.) Yet at refueling, yet another Saber is shown which HAS wing tanks. Atop this, the narrator is telling how the jet had to drop its wing tanks. (?!) Perhaps audiences in 1953 were not so critical. Any shiny aluminum jet was the same as any other.

All in all, MM is a pretty good B-movie. It kicked off 1953, but would become overshadowed by that year's more famous films, Invaders from Mars and War of the Worlds. That's too bad too. It deserves better than the obscurity it's gotten.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I actually remember this Movie -- we had a very small black and white TV, and this was broadcast several years after its release. Loved it. The 'solution' to killing the monster is quite clever and for the time, the Director was quite successful in creating suspense.

Randall Landers said...

I've often wondered if this was the basis of the "Invisble Monster" episode of JONNY QUEST.

Darci said...

I thought that Invisible Monster looked more like the one from 1954's Monster from the Ocean Floor.

I've often wondered why the scriptwriters chose to locate the Deltatron in Nova Scotia?
Thanks!

John Drake said...

Howdy,

One of my favorite movies.
Shows the attitude of the 50's male actors.
Don't bother to say please and don't hesitate to
heckle the people around you.

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